Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Edward Feser, The Last Superstition, an Unpublishable Review, part 1

I had this weird idea, since I blog about atheism some, that I might look at the theist books that have been written in response to the new atheist movement. So I ordered a book, The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism, that was highly touted in its Amazon reviews (which, admittedly, could have been written by his friends), to see in what way the new atheists were fundamentally wrong, overly-simplistic, misguided, and just plain wrong. (I wrote ‘wrong’ twice. That’s just how wrong they are!) I thought it might be fun if there were some ridiculous arguments to pick apart.

This book operates in the tradition of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberals Are the Real Big Poopyheads! (no, not that one, the first one). Feser either is part of the right-wing movement or he knows them well, because the book constantly pushes the victimization of all right thinking people by the atheists running the universities, the media, and the government. (They’re even hiding under your bed!) I must confess I was forced to skim some of the more tedious parts. The preface, for example, is a typical polemic about gay marriage undermining our God-given moral values, secular humanism destroying our society, etc. The true surprise in this volume is the extent to which he insults the intelligence, scholarship, and character of his atheists (on pages viii, ix, xi, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 19 on the first 20 pages [and that doesn’t include distortions or problematic interpretations of their ideas]), especially in the context of accusing his opponents of acting superior and insulting theists. Clearly, he commits ad hominem fallacies and strawmen, but the irony is his use of ad hominem attacks on someone while accusing the opponent of committing ad hominems. This style of reasoning deserves a special name, and I’ve come to think of it as a defining feature on the right. The website Sadly, No has the motto: "It’s always projection." Since it takes other fallacies as subsidiary parts, it cannot be taken as a subset of another fallacy, so I propose to call it the “Double Wingnut” because wingnuts are doing exactly what they are accusing the other side of doing. "Look at how condescending and insulting that uneducated dolt is being!" (I cannot help having the feeling that even diagnosing the fallacy counts as a triple wingnut, but I refuse to get any more self-referential.)

Given the quantity of these insults, one wonders what the purpose of the book is. It purports to present a more convincing argument for the existence of God than the new atheists have addressed, or even could address. But, again, given the excessive insults, it cannot be intended to reach the atheists themselves, or anyone sympathetic to the atheist position, and it is unlikely to appeal to anyone in the broad middle of American political or religious thought (for example, claiming "Its [the rejection of the Aristotelian scientific and metaphysical picture] logical implications can also be seen in today's headlines: in the abortion industry's slaughter of millions upon millions of unborn human beings. . ."). Given these outrageous assertions, the work cannot reach out to people of good conscience who disagree (since, apparently, atheists, or even just non-Aristotelian theists, are moral monsters) or to those as yet undecided on the issue. Thus, I believe the purpose of the book is to preach to the choir, to salve the egos of the converted who feel disrespected and humiliated by those smarty-pants atheists with their English accents and academic credentials.

As part of the Goldberg tradition, a Goldberg variation if you will, Feser wants to convince you, dear wingnut reader, that it is really those liberal, atheist academics with their fancy degrees and awards and prizes who are actually stupid, whereas you, the semi-literate mouth-breather, are the true illuminated ones. Anyway, reading this book is slow going because so much of it is aimed at massaging the egos of the morons [heavens, I'm so hostile and dismissive!] who constitute his primary audience, and it takes a considerable amount of time actually to get to some of the arguments for the existence of God. I have not done a word count, but it certainly seemed that more words were devoted to gratuitous insults than to actually presenting arguments for the existence of God.

Since it is impossible to refute his points one at a time in a blog post, I thought I would pick out three instances indicating his rather questionable insinuations and inferences.

1. In the preface, Feser attributes the following quote to Richard Dawkins on critics of evolution:

They are “ignorant, stupid, insane and wicked” (Feser p. xi), and this is “evidence of [Dawkins’s] arrogance and intolerance” (as Dawkins himself says in this article).

What Dawkins actually wrote, in an article titled “Ignorance Is No Crime”, is the following (which I also quote from the above link):

"It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet somebody who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that)."

The review (reproduced here) continues, (I couldn’t find the original online.)

If that gives you offense, I'm sorry. You are probably not stupid, insane or wicked; and ignorance is no crime in a country with strong local traditions of interference in the freedom of biology educators to teach the central theorem of their subject. I recently toured East Coast radio stations, doing phone-ins. I came away optimistic. I had expected hostile barracking from creationists with closed minds. Instead, what I found was genuine curiosity and honest interest. I got sincere questions from intelligent people who really wanted to know because they had literally no education in evolution.

This is clearly not insulting the vast majority of Americans; he is insulting people in the creationist movement who study the issue of evolution enough to understand (apparently) the evidence yet continue to disbelieve in evolution. Most ordinary folk in America who do not believe in the theory of evolution have never had a chance to learn the basic facts (believe me, this is true) and so are, by dint of lacking knowledge, by definition ignorant of the vast amount of evidence for the theory. Some sophists, such as Duane Gish and Henry Morris, who appear to have studied evolution and travel the country arguing against the theory are something other than ignorant. I cannot agree with the “insane” (although there is some moral failing here), but I actually think it’s a more complicated matter of self-deception and motivated error. So, Dawkins’s statement left out some slightly more charitable options, but he was not insulting the common people who do not know the evidence for evolution as ignorant because people who do not know this evidence are, by definition, ignorant of it. (And, as far as I'm concerned, it's not possible to insult Duane Gish too much!)

Still, perhaps Dawkins missed the diagnosis of the sophists running the creationist movement. However, I would like to refer back to Feser’s purported Dawkins quote. Feser claims he called them “ignorant, stupid, insane and wicked” when Dawkins actually said they were “ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but I'd rather not consider that).” I don’t know the source of Feser’s misquotation (although it seems to have dropped the “or” in translation on many Christian apologetics websites, and Feser, presumably, got it from some such source and added the “and” himself to make it more grammatical), but if he cannot tell the difference between an “and” and an “or” (or did not check the quotation for accuracy), then he is in no position to be writing a book involving logic (or research).

2. The second example is from Feser's first chapter on the topic of Antony Flew’s conversion to deism. The chapter begins with the anecdote of that famed atheist’s conversion late in life. Feser does not address most of the significant reasons philosophers had for questioning Flew’s conversion. Mark Oppenheimer, writing in the New York Times Magazine explains reasons to have doubts about the provenance of 'Flew’s' book. It raises many reasons to doubt that Flew wrote this book himself. For example, the new book does not address arguments Flew himself made in the past. There is no indication that the author is aware of Flew’s arguments or has any explanation for why Flew’s view might have changed. Most telling to me is Flew’s unfamiliarity with the authors that “his” book makes primary use of in its arguments. Indeed, Flew essentially confessed, in the interview with the author of the NY magazine article, to not writing or remembering much of what was purported to be primarily his own work. I don’t care much for authority; religious belief depends more on authority and revelation than does atheism. So, my point is It’s unfortunate if Flew was misused by religious friends, as it appears, in order to advance their agenda. I do not place any particular value on authority, so I care little whether Flew changed his mind. But my point now is to critique Feser’s conclusion from the episode:

This episode illustrates, in several respects, the main themes of this book. In their condescending assumption that belief in God could only be the product of wishful thinking, stupidity, ignorance, or intellectual dishonesty; in their corresponding refusal seriously to consider the possibility that that belief might be true and the arguments for it sound; and in their glib supposition that the only rational considerations relevant to the question are scientific ones, rather than philosophical; in all of these attitudes Flew’s critics manifest the quintessential mindset of modern secularism…[i]t is a mindset that echoes the closed-minded prejudice and irrationality it typically attributes to religious believers themselves.

Of course, Oppenheimer does none of these things. He does not assume that belief in God could only be the product of wishful thinking etc. Instead, he considers Flew’s older writings, interviews Flew about ‘his’ newer writings, asks about the inconsistencies, finds Flew unable to respond to them at all (merely admitting to the inconsistency upon prodding) and unable to even recognize the authors that ‘he’ used copiously in ‘his’ own book. Could the reasons given in the book be good ones? The Times author never says, but what looks increasingly clear is that they were not Flew’s reasons. And that is the subject of the article.

What of the other critics who concluded that Flew must have been senile before reading ‘his’ book? That is not so clear. It could be that the ground covered by intelligent design and cosmological arguments is so well known that they thought it unlikely that ‘Flew’s’ book could provide convincing new reasons to accept them. Given Flew’s previous philosophical work and acumen, and, perhaps, the known inadequacies of the arguments, the best explanation for his conversion might be given in terms of psychological debilitation and manipulation by religious friends. There is good reasons to doubt that Flew was the author of these works, and the ‘condescending’ attitudes of the atheists might reflect this article as much as their preexisting beliefs about the arguments ‘Flew’ presented.

There is some possibility that some of the critics were rejecting ‘Flew’s’ arguments out of hand. It’s not obvious that this is closed-minded. No one has time to read everyone else’s work. Am I close-minded for thinking that Absolute Idealism is an untenable philosophical position despite my never having read Professor M.Q. Snerdley’s learned dissertation on the topic? Not really. The arguments in the given field are mostly well-known, and philosophers (or professional atheists) have worked out their views on them in some detail.

Moreover, Feser is a bit carried away by his rhetoric. How does this episode illustrate anything about atheists’ “glib supposition that the only rational considerations relevant to the question are scientific ones, rather than philosophical” (Feser p. 2)? Seriously, where did that come from? No one quoted said anything about scientific considerations superceding philosophical ones. Some noted Flew’s exposure to recent scientific ideas all came through the religious friends who may have presented evidence to him in a misleading or biased way. Science is clearly relevant to the intelligent design argument, so there was some mention of science in the Flew affair, but no one insinuated that science alone was relevant to the issue.

More generally, Feser takes great offense at the condescension, hostility, and distortions of the new atheist movement while condescendingly distorting their position and reasons. This is the classic Double Wingnut. He drips scorn for the opposition on the basis of their scornfulness. No doubt some atheists responded scornfully in their heart of hearts or in the innermost recesses of their atheist bastions, but he does nothing to address the actual published work on the issue.

3. The third incident illustrates that Feser is writing not just an anti-atheist screed but also a political screed against a perceived atheist-dominated liberal political agenda. So, he connects his book to ongoing political events. This third illustration of the author’s poor presentation of opposing positions involves his claim that atheists ("secularists," as he styles them--although secularism is clearly a distinct position from atheism) see themselves as rational and moral, rather than as the deeply corrupted, hell-bound, Satan’s-sex-slaves that they are. He writes,

[S]ecularists took to defining themselves as members of the “reality-based community,” in contrast to the purportedly “faith-based community” of religious believers.

No doubt many atheists would see things this way, but he inaccurately describes the origin and use of the term “reality-based community”. Here’s the quotation from Ron Suskind talking about his interviews with members of the George W. Bush administration, including an anonymous aide, before the 2004 presidential election:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

The phrase was adopted by political liberals in opposition to the Bush administration as a kind of badge of honor unwittingly bestowed upon them by their opponents. People on the political right tended to view this as an erroneous claim, especially because the quote was anonymous. Liberals liked the idea of being interested in studying reality, understanding it, and devising carefully-crafted responses to it. The Bush administration, on the other hand, created their own reality by their actions. The Bush’s advisor’s phrase had a weirdly post-modern feel to it, but the moniker was taken as an honorific rather than an insult by liberals who believed the Bush administration was insufficiently interested in the study of objective reality and so acted without adequate understanding of it with catastrophic results, as predicted by said members of the reality-based community. Thus, the label was taken by liberals, not secularists; it was adopted as indicating an opposition to their political opponents, not religious believers; and it was contrasted not with “faith-based community” (which would imply an unfortunate contrast between faith and reality) but with the “reality-creating community” of the Bush administration (although those words were never used). Instead, the phrase “faith-based” is a term introduced by the George W. Bush administration to apply to religion, and justify spending federal funds on religious groups, despite the establishment clause of the first amendment that prevents the establishment of a religion (which is taken by most, but not the right wing legal “scholars”, as a prohibition against endorsing religion over non-religion).

Feser’s errors here individually are minor, but they are symptomatic of his general laxity with respect to the opinions and arguments of his opponents (indeed, exactly the same sort of laxity that he accuses his opponents of). These minor errors suggests a failure to make critical distinctions, to paint all opponents with a broad brush (conflating atheists with liberals) despite important distinctions among them, and basing those critiques on things the atheists never said. All of these problems are a disheartening beginning to a work for which I had some hope.

These three examples illustrate a general trend that led me to the following conclusions:
First, the book is polemical. Its purpose is to attack the opposing position, and it is not necessarily going to be fair and considered in doing so.

Second, the book revels in ad hominems. By focusing on the condescension and attitudes of the atheists, one distracts from the arguments and evidence for and against theism (whether this is his purpose or not). While we all enjoy a good ad hominem diatribe against our opponents, these attacks are gratuitous, unseemly, and, largely absent from the books (at least the Dawkins and Dennett books) that he critiques. Even if he were correct about the character, scholarship and intellect of his opponents, these facts would have no bearing on the truth of a position from claims about the individuals espousing it.

Third, Feser cleverly lowers the bar for argumentative quality in the book. If one focuses on the condescension of one’s opponents, one does not need to make one’s arguments fully convincing. All one has to show is that the condescension is unwarranted, and one can do that by showing that a reasonable perhaps might accept them, not that any reasonable person must accept them.

It remains to be seen whether these arguments can meet these standards. That will be the topic for further posts.


  1. I love your posts, so keep 'em coming.

    I've had my fair share of reading "the best arguments against the New Atheists", and they're all just really, really bad and terrible. I was in fact looking forward to the serious rebuts, because within that at least would be creme-de-la-creme of religious arguments, but we find the cream has gone off, the bread stale and they no longer offer alcoholic beverages to try to get through their stupid old trifle. I am seriously at a loss for seeing a single piece of work that advances the religious perspective. Anyone have any good ones? You know; the good kind, solid reasoning, good arguments, to the point, and not dripping with persecution complex and stupid?

  2. We naturalists won the game; nothe point is how do psychologists help the God-addicts to become free of their additcion?